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Bacterial Infections and their Effect on Male Fertility

The causes of male fertility issues are often complex. Some can be addressed with a lifestyle overhaul, whilst others may require invasive surgeries or assisted fertility treatments. But could some cases be solved by a simple course of antibiotics, such as those caused by bacterial infections?

Evolving research indicates that bacterial and viral infections and issues with the sperm microbiome could be behind many cases of male infertility. Here we’ll explain the link between infections and sperm health.

 

Viral / Bacterial Infections and Sperm Health

When talking about infections, it’s important to understand the subtle but important difference between viral infections and bacterial infections.

Bacterial vs Viral Infection

Bacterial and viral infections often trigger similar symptoms in humans, but viral infections tend to be milder and not last as long, whereas bacterial infection tends to be more severe. In some cases, what might start as a viral infection, could develop into a bacterial infection – like a cold developing into a chest infection.

Bacterial infections – like chlamydia or a UTI – can often be treated with antibiotics, whereas viral infections – like herpes or the common cold – are harder to completely eradicate with medication.

 

How do viral and bacterial infections impact male fertility?

Both viral and bacterial infections can cause issues with male fertility. That’s because they both cause an inflammatory response in the body. Inflammation sometimes gets a bad reputation when talking about our health – but when it comes to fighting off infections, it’s hugely important! When bacteria or a virus starts attacking your body, inflammatory cells are sent out to trap whatever is trying to make you sick.

Whilst this is effective, there are side effects of an inflammatory response. In the short term, you may have a fever, or experience pain or swelling – and it can also cause oxidative stress on the body.

The combination of inflammation and oxidative stress is key to the link between infection and sperm health. Many studies have shown that inflammation can harm male fertility and oxidative stress is one of the biggest enemies of sperm production!

 

Types of infections that can impact male fertility

Any type of infection can cause inflammation in the body – which could potentially harm the sperm production process. However, there are some, more localised infections, that have been known to cause direct issues with male fertility.

STIs

The majority of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) have the potential to impact male fertility by causing inflammation and scarring in the reproductive system. This includes both bacterial infections (like gonorrhoea and chlamydia) and viral infections (like Hepatitis and HIV).

Mumps

Mumps is a viral infection that used to be very common until the introduction of the MMR vaccine. One of the most common symptoms of mumps is swelling of the parotid glands which makes your face extremely puffy. However, one of the complications of Mumps can be swollen testicles. This seems to affect around a third of men who get mumps later in life. Out of the guys that have swollen testicles related to mumps, around 1 in 10 will see a drop in sperm count.

Epididymitis

Epididymitis is an inflammation of the coiled tube at the back of the testicle that stores and carries sperm, called the epididymis, at the back of the testicle. This inflammation is usually caused by an infection (sometimes it can be triggered by an STI or Mumps). Symptoms include swollen, uncomfortable scrotum and you sometimes might see blood in the semen. If left untreated it can cause long-term issues with sperm production and fertility. You might also have orchitis, which is an infection in one or both testicles. If you have these infections at the same time, it’s known as epididymal-orchitis.

Prostate Infection

The prostate gland plays an important role in the production of semen, so if you have an infection of the prostate it can play havoc with your plans to conceive. Prostate infections usually occur when bacteria from urine leak into the prostate. Symptoms include yellow semen, painful ejaculation, difficulty urination, pain during sex and pain in the lower abdomen area or back.

Imbalanced Bacteria in Sperm Cells

There are also more subtle bacterial infections and imbalances that can cause issues with sperm health. Like every area of our body, the male reproductive system has a delicate balance of good and bad bacteria – this is known as the microbiome. When the bad bacteria become more predominant this can cause issues with health and fertility. It is estimated that around 33% of infertile men are living with ‘asymptomatic bacteriospermia’ (aka a bacterial imbalance in their microbiome that they know nothing about!)

 

How to know if an infection is affecting your fertility

When it comes to infertility, it is not always easy to identify the root cause of the issue. However, there are some ways you can spot whether you might be living with an infection that could be impacting your sperm health.

Symptoms

In some cases, infections will come with a bunch of recognisable symptoms including:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling

 

More localised infections of the male reproductive system may also exhibit:

  • Pain and swelling of the testicles
  • Pain during sex
  • Pain when peeing
  • Strange discharge or changes in semen colour

 

However, there are many times when infections will be asymptomatic aka have no symptoms at all, This is why testing is so important.

Testing

One of the simplest ways to start infection investigations is to do an STI test, as these are some of the most common infections that impact male fertility. Our partners Yoxly offer an at-home STI test that makes it easier than ever to get checked out for 8 of the most common sexually transmitted infections.

However, for a more detailed look at your sperm cells, you may want to invest in a semen culture test. This test will help to identify if there are any common infection-causing microorganisms present in your semen. Semen culture tests usually do check for some STIs but they will also check for many other pathogens that aren’t necessarily contracted through sex – so even if you are sure you don’t have an STI, it is still worth doing.

 

How To Treat Male Fertility Infections

If you have an infection that is impacting your fertility, the treatment will depend on what type of infection you have, how long you have had it, and the severity of it.

In some cases, where a bacterial infection is causing fertility issues, it may just take a simple course of antibiotics to clear up your infection, as Marco talks about in this video from Gaia. It’s possible that around three months after your treatment your sperm cells will be completely infection-free and your sperm health parameters will have greatly improved!

However, it can sometimes be more complicated than that. For example, if you have a viral infection – like Mumps or the ZIKA virus – these are not treatable with traditional medication and you usually just have to wait for symptoms to pass. If you contract a virus that causes swelling of your testicles, try to keep them as cool as possible to reduce the risk of long-term damage to your sperm health and reproductive system.

If you had an infection in the past and are concerned that it may have impacted your fertility, the best thing to do is to get to know your swimmers proactively. Our at-home sperm test makes it easier than ever to understand your fertility, without the cost or commitment of going to a fertility clinic.

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Wearing tight pants and underwear

Studies show that men who wear looser underwear have higher sperm concentration and total sperm count compared to men who wear tighter underwear. So, lose the tight clothes and wear something loose to give your testicles some air.

CONCLUSION: learn more about how heat can affect sperm quality here.

Stress

Besides higher mortality rate and various diseases, stress is associated with low sperm quality. Stress is known to be associated with lower testosterone levels and oxidative stress with both playing an essential role in producing and maintaining healthy sperm cells.

CONCLUSION: If you feel stressed, we recommend you get some help so you can have a balanced mental health. For a stress management guide, download the ExSeed app for free and start your personalized action plan today.

Physical activity

Scientific studies show that men who are physically active have better semen parameters than men who are inactive. Fertility specialists also state that regular physical activity has beneficial impact on sperm fertility parameters and such a lifestyle can enhance the fertility status of men.

Prioritizing exercise can help improve your overall health and result in healthy, fast swimming sperm cells that have good chances of fertilizing an egg.

CONCLUSION: Try incorporating exercise in your weekly schedule to you ensure exercising at least twice weekly. We recommend a combination of cardio training and strength exercise. Read more about exercise and male fertility on our blog.

Nutrition

Fast Food
Processed foods damage the health of sperm-producing cells and cause oxidative stress, which lead to poorer sperm quality. Heavy consumption of junk food (every week) can increase the likelihood of infertility since men who consume vast amounts of unhealthy food are at risk of having poor sperm quality. Besides harming your fertility, junk food enlarges your waistline, harms your cardiovascular system, kidneys, and more.

Vegetables
Eating more fruit and vegetables can increase your sperm concentration and motility. It’s important that you consume a healthy diet filled with antioxidants and that you eat vegetables every day. Foods such as apricots and red bell peppers are high in vitamin A, which improves male fertility by nurturing healthier sperm. Men who are deficient in this vitamin tend to have slow and sluggish sperm.

Sugary snacks/beverages: several times a week Excessive consumption of high sugar items can lead to oxidative stress, which negatively impacts testosterone levels and sperm motility. Sugary snacks and beverages are also highly associated with obesity and low fertility.
CONCLUSION: To boost sperm quality, stay away from fast food, processed food, and sugary snacks or beverages. You need to implement a healthy prudent diet filled with necessary superfoods needed for good sperm production. Check out our guide to Male Fertility Superfoods. For personalized guidance and support on how you can start improving your sperm health, check out the Bootcamp.

Heat

Direct heat can inhibit optimal sperm production and cause Sperm DNA damage. Sperm cells like environments that are a couple of degrees lower than body temperature. Avoid overheating from warm blankets, seat warmers, heat from your laptop, hot showers, and saunas.

Cigarette smoking

The exposure to tobacco smoke has significant negative effects on semen quality. The damage of cigarettes and nicotine of course depends on how many cigarettes you smoke per day and for how long, but even low usage (up to 10 cigarettes / day) can inhibit healthy sperm production.  

CONCLUSION: Stay as far away from cigarette smoking as possible if you care about your general health and your fertility. Read more here.

Cell phone

When you have your cell phone in your front pocket, your testicles are exposed to electromagnetic radiation, which studies have shown to damage the sperm cells. Put your phone in the back pocket of your pants or in your jacket pocket.

BMI

There is a clear association between obesity and reduced sperm quality. At least part of the reason for this is that obese men may have abnormal reproductive hormonal profiles, which can impair sperm production and lead to infertility. 

A BMI higher than 30 can lead to several processes in the body (overheating, increase in oxidative stress in the testes, sperm DNA damage, erectile dysfunction) that can have a negative impact on male fertility. This can result in problems when trying to conceive.  

CONCLUSION: BMI is one of the risk factors that influence semen quality and, for example, sperm motility.  

Alcohol

A beer or glass of wine now and then do not really harm sperm quality. But excess alcohol drinking (more than 20 units per week) can reduce the production of normally formed sperm needed for a successful pregnancy.

CONCLUSION: If you want to stay safe, stay under 14 units of alcohol per week. For more information on how alcohol can affect male fertility, take a look at our blog: “Alcohol and Sperm Quality”.

Age

Studies show that women younger than 35 and men younger than 40 have a better chance of getting pregnant. Men can produce sperm cells almost through their entire life, but the sperm cell DNA is more fragile and prone to damage after the age of 40.

As men age, their testes tend to get smaller and softer resulting in a decline in sperm quality and production. These changes are partly because of an age-related decrease in testosterone level, which plays a very important role in sperm

production. Higher male age (>40 years) is not only associated with a decline in sperm production but also with increased sperm DNA fragmentation and worsened morphology (shape) and motility (movement). These negative effects make the sperm cells less qualified for egg fertilization.

CONCLUSION: with an age under 40, you shouldn’t have to worry much about age as a factor in itself. However, studies have shown a slow decline after the age of 30-35 years

and if you are above 40 years of age, your sperm quality can be affected due to increased sperm DNA damage resulting in a decrease of sperm motility and concentration. Remember that you cannot evaluate the quality of a sperm sample by just looking at it – this requires a sperm analysis.